British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised Ireland‘s Leo Varadkar on Tuesday there would be no physical checks on the border between their two countries after Brexit, a spokeswoman said.
But in their first phone call since he took office, Johnson repeated that the current “backstop” plan to keep the frontier open, which is included in the EU’s draft divorce deal, was unacceptable.
“On Brexit, the prime minister made clear that the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31, no matter what,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“He said that in all scenarios, the government will be steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border.”
The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland after years of violence over British control which left 3,500 people dead.
Removing checks on the border with Ireland was considered a key factor in reducing tensions. But after Brexit, that border will become part of the EU’s external frontier and should therefore be policed accordingly.
Johnson approached Brexit talks “in a spirit of friendship, and that his clear preference is to leave the EU with a deal, but it must be one that abolishes the backstop”, the spokeswoman added.
However, EU leaders have said they will not renegotiate the deal they struck with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May — even though it has been rejected by the British parliament three times.
Varadkar repeated that the backstop, which would keep Britain aligned with EU trade rules in order to keep the UK-Irish frontier open and free-flowing, was “necessary”.
“Noting that the Brexit negotiations take place between the UK and the EU, the Taoiseach (prime minister) explained that the EU was united in its view that the withdrawal agreement could not be reopened,” a statement from Dublin said.
It said that so-called alternative arrangements, such as electronic border checks, could replace the backstop in the future but “thus far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated”.
Varadkar invited Johnson to Dublin, saying he wanted a “long and close working relationship” and the two men agreed to stay in touch, both offices said.
The two men also discussed the need to restore the devolved government in Northern Ireland, which has been suspended since January 2017 in a dispute between the two main parties that share power.